Over a two-year period, I lost 50 pounds to reach my personal goal and have now maintained my target for another year. I learned some things in the process, and it may be that this information would help others. We Americans have a tendency to thicken, which is both unsightly and unhealthy. It isn’t a great mystery what needs to be done. To sum it up in five words: better eating habits and more exercise. But even knowing that, it took me a long time to figure out how to get rid of excess pounds, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person to have had such a struggle.
Still, with all good intentions, I’ve found it difficult to write about this subject. Part of the reason is, it sounds a bit like bragging, which I try not to do, or at least get caught doing. Also, the subject suggests a certain narcissism, an excessive interest in one’s own looks or well-being, and I don’t like to think of myself as more-than-normally interested in my own physical aspects. Also, it’s hopelessly hackneyed. You can get more diet advice in the grocery store checkout line than a normal person can digest in a year.
Still, the obesity epidemic persists, and in my own circle many continue to fight their individual battles of the bulge. I’ll therefore dispense with further introductions, excuses, or formalities, and just say what worked for me.
1. The most important thing is commitment. I had a better than average diet and exercise system when I was at my largest (205 pounds), but it was not adequate. The change began for me with a decision at age 50 to make real changes and a personal commitment to stay with them for the duration. I developed a personal animating vision, which was this: if no piano fell on my head first, I’d ski deep powder at Alta on my 85th birthday. Well, maybe not the exact day, since my birthday is in July. The point is, I would take care of my body so as to maximize health and happiness for quite a few years out. I determined that I was willing to accept the sacrifice of certain customary pleasures, like Snickers and Lay’s, in return for my geezer powder day. Developing a sustaining vision and planning to sustain it were essential for me.
2. The second most important mental element is an experimental attitude. It’s necessary to experiment with diet and exercise. There really is no single formula for what to eat and what activities to do, even for an individual, because our metabolism is not constant. The system that worked for the first 20 pounds may not work for the next 20. I approached the effort somewhat in the spirit of a science experiment. I tested a routine for a while, and if it didn’t produce results, I modified it. I did not look for one comprehensive, enduring solution. I accepted the likelihood that the process would always be one of trial and error.
3. Eating is important, and should be done with loving care. Keeping health in focus, I avoided fad diets, which are almost by definition unsustainable. I triangulated from the conventional wisdom (e.g. the U.S.D.A. food pyramid) and respectable weight loss programs like Weight Watchers for eating advice. My guiding rules, developed with the benefit of numerous inputs and through trial and error, involved healthier inputs and smaller portions. Being vegetarian helps (though I should admit that I was a fishetarian-type vegetarian even when I was at my maximum). At various points I focussed on (a) a larger percentage of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet, (b) a lower percentage of processed foods, (c) less fat of every sort (eventually I worked my way down to skim milk), and (d) fewer pointless carbohydrates. I quit my habit of decades of having seconds at dinner, and got accustomed to a smaller plate of food. I quit having desserts except on special occasions. I quit having wine on weeknights. None of this happened suddenly, and some of it I’ve modified up as well as down. The point is, eating well involves eating more nutritious food and less unhealthy food and generally eating more sensibly.
4. Snacking is important. I made it my goal never to be hungry. My reasoning was that I needed to continue functioning effectively as a professional and a human, and hunger makes it hard to do that. Also, hunger tends to lead to overeating, and makes it hard to have small portions at meal time. Also, hunger is no fun. So, I tried to have a healthy low calorie snack every two or three of hours. This required experimentation to find qualifying foods, and continually requires planning to make it work. My current favorites include: unsalted nuts (10 per serving), apples, bananas, raw carrots, small low fat yoghurts, and small bags of popcorn (100 calories). Regular snacking on pleasant, healthy foods works.
5. Exercise is necessary, and one probably needs to do more of it than one thinks. Through trial and error, I discovered that my half hour of aerobic activity three or four times a week needed to become 40 minutes of more intense activity five or six times a week to get rid of weight. I’ve done just about every type of aerobic machine, including ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, various types of stairs, and rowing. I like to vary the activity both to avoid boredom and to work different muscles. Lately I’ve taken up swimming, which I find challenging. I vary the duration and intensity depending on how my body feels and other factors. For example, I exercise harder and longer when the scale indicates a meaningful upward trend. Weight loss is only one good reason to exercise, of course. I’ve gradually come to enjoy my gym routine, with more of a view to strength, flexibility, and mental health. But there’s no way to work around the need for exercising to lose weight.
6. A good bathroom scale is helpful. I got one that measures tenths of a pound and keeps a record of prior weights. It’s part of the science project to take measurements. I do it every day before I shower. Some days there’s a little moment of happiness, other days a moment of less happiness. But the feedback is important.
Could it really be that simple? No. My over eating had to do with my upbringing, culture, social milieu, and long standing habits. Like most people, I ate (and eat) for many reasons in addition to the need for nourishment — happiness, sadness, anxiety, you name it. A lot of bad eating has to do with bad habits, and habits are hard to break. Breaking the worst bad ones and building better ones did not happen all at once, and the process for me is still ongoing. But I have proven to my own satisfaction that it is possible to change dramatically for the better.